When Tokyo Moved West

How the megapolis got its modern shape (Taishō, Part 2B)

Among many other changes ushered in by the Taishō (大正時代, 1912–26) era, increasing industrialization caused a huge shift in Japan’s population away from rural areas and into urban centers, and none more so than the city itself, which naturally needed to expand to accommodate the influx of people, and changed to assume much of the form we recognize today. The growth also shifted traditional centers within the city toward the west, was to continue on into the postwar growth of areas such as Shibuya (渋谷) and Shinjuku (新宿).

While Nihombashi had been the center of commerce in Edo era and remained so through the Meiji period (江戸時代, 1603–1868 and 明治, 1868–1912), with the sudden and massive growth in Taishō, other areas naturally began to sprout as well. Retail sales remained largely centered in Nihombashi, in particular at massive new department stores such as Mitsukoshi (三越) and Shirokiya (白木屋), but other areas came to be the centers for other activities. The former still has its main branch in Nihombashi, while the latter’s setbacks due to the earthquake and war were less recoverable, though it still has a few stores, including its headquarters in Honolulu. Marunouchi (丸の内) and Ginza (銀座) blossomed as districts for business and pleasure respectively.

Marunouchi, a district I mentioned as the location for the first biru, was the smallest of these moves—essentially from one side of Tokyo Station to the other. Nihombashi sits just to the east of the station, while Marunouchi grew just to its west. The area, a filled-in portion of Tokyo Bay, had been purchased from the Meiji government in 1890 by the Mitsubishi company (三菱), being known for a while as the Mitsubishi Meadow (三菱ヶ原, Mitsubishigahara). The name Marunouchi attests the area’s origin as part of the castle’s fortifications, as it means “within the circle” (i.e., of walls).

Things began to change in Taishō, and in addition to headquartering their own company there, Mitsubishi began to develop the area for other businesses as well. In particular, the major banks moved in and the Tokyo Station building I discussed previously was notably built on the Marunouchi side of the station. The Mitsubishi group still owns much of the area today, and Japan’s top three banks remain headquartered there. Marunouchi also presents a stark contrast between old and new, with the moat separating feudal Japan from the skyscrapers of one of the largest business districts in the world.

Nearly due south of Marunouchi, what was to become Ginza was a neighborhood of tightly packed wooden buildings, much like the rest of the Edo-period city. What cleared the way for the area’s growth in the new era, was not a grand plan, like the Haussmannization of Paris, but a fire.

Fires were all too common among the Edo buildings, because of the crowding, as well as the building materials, which were mainly wood and paper. Smallish blazes were so common there was a saying that, “Fires and fights are the flowers of Edo”.¹ But in 1872, a large one gutted most of Ginza. The Meiji government saw an upside to this and decided to rebuild the area as a Westernized model of modernization, which came to be known as the “Bricktown” (煉瓦街, Rengagai). The main planner of the Ginza Bricktown was expatriate Irish architect, Thomas Waters, who had somehow managed to build a career in Japan even before Japan’s opening to the West. By the time of his work in Ginza he was employed as Surveyor-General and foreign advisor to the Meiji Government. Nonetheless, by 1878, he too fell prey to souring attitudes toward foreign designers and left seeking better fortunes elsewhere.

Waters did see the Bricktown through to its completion in 1875, but it was hardly a smashing success. The Georgian-style buildings were an impressive sight, but while the brick construction did provide a decent amount of fire resistance, it was not well suited to the humid environment of Japan and they tended to be quite damp and prone to mildew. This meant few people were willing to pay the high asking prices, and many of the buildings stood empty.

The broad main thoroughfare of Ginza Dōri (銀座通り), initially mainly for foot traffic, was restructured to include streetcar and automobile traffic as well. This was essentially a road-building pilot for the country, and it was decided that wooden blocks would be used with the interstices filled with asphalt. The experiment can only be called an abject failure: when it rained—as it frequently does in Japan—the blocks floated away, and when it was hot, the asphalt melted. While the areas for pedestrians and vehicles were clearly delineated by the willows the district came to be known for, cars and trolleys vied for right of way in a street without lanes for each marked out. In the end, the street caught fire, thus bookending Taishō Ginza between conflagrations.

The new brick buildings worked as advertised at least in this regard and the blaze only the blaze seems to have only affected the street, which was replaced with a more conventional one afterwards. As for the willows, even though they remain strongly associated with the area—there is an annual willow celebration—a typhoon had severely damaged them even before the street fire, and they had been replaced with hardier ginkgos.

The Tokyo subway, now so central to the city’s identity also began, if not in Ginza proper, with the Ginza Line (Ginza-sen, 銀座線). It was the result of a 1914 visit to London by businessman Noritsugu Hayakawa (早川 徳次). He saw the need for a system like the Underground, which was to become the first subway in East Asia.

The source of inspiration, and also the builders of the world’s first subway, the UK also provided experts to get the project underway. Some eclecticism was shown when it came to the cars, which were built on the boxy lines of New York’s rather than the Tube’s cylindrical model.

At its 1927 opening, the subway was only the portion of the modern Ginza line that stretches from Ueno (上野) to Asakusa (浅草). It was too short to be useful, falling well short of its aim to run through Ginza and end at Shimbashi (新橋), which had a station already serviced by other trains and so making a sensible terminus. Nonetheless, the novelty of the subway seems to have won out, as people would wait sometimes as long as two hours to travel along the five minutes of track. Just as the city itself, the line continued to extend westward, and its modern terminus is now Shibuya.

This tale of the difficulties in getting around in the rapidly swelling city is far from unique. Tanizaki Junichirō (谷崎 潤一郎) wrote of the poor state of the roads, and related the following of the overburdened streetcar system:²

For the general populace there was no means of transport but the streetcar. Car after car would come by full and leave people waiting at stops. At rush hour the press was murderous. Hungry and tired, the office worker and the laborer, in a hurry to get home, would push their way aboard a car already hopelessly full, each one for himself, paying no attention to the attempts of the conductor to keep order […]. The crowds, a black mountain outside a streetcar would push and shove and shout […]. They put up with it because they were Japanese, I heard it said, but if a European or American city were subjected to such things for even a day there would be rioting.

The crowding he refers to meshes with our modern image of the city, but it seems to have been still more extreme, and there is an orderliness and etiquette involved in ridership today even under extreme conditions. Obasan seem to be the sole exception—they routinely throw elbows and stamp on insteps to get to the coveted seats beside train doors. The phenomenon inspired the term obatarian (オバタリアン), a punning portmanteau of おば (oba, “middle-aged woman”) and the Japanese title, Battalion (バタリアン), of the film The Return of the Living Dead.

Returning to Ginza, by the late Meiji period, the Ginza began to come into its own with the advent of bazaars in the area. The forerunners of modern department stores, these large, multi-story buildings housed a large number of small shops selling goods such as toys, stationery, and books. By 1902 there were seven such bazaars in Ginza.

The other element that cemented the status of Ginza in the Taisho was the opening of Café Printemps in 1911. A painter named Matsuyama Shozo, who had returned from studying abroad in Paris, wanted to reproduce the atmosphere of the cafés there. Matsuyama succeeded; people from the art world, such as painters and poets, as well as others who had been abroad, came there to socialize. The Café was quickly followed by imitators like Café Paulista, Café Lion, Café  Tiger, etc., all venues to see and be seen.

Ginza became what is known as a sakariba. Made up of the words 盛り (sakari) “height” and 場 (ba) “place”, it might be directly translated as “amusement quarter”. Even this term was changing in Taishō, moving toward its modern meaning as a place with crowds, neon lights, and dozens of small drinking establishments.

The Edo-period origins of the sakariba were actually of three types: open outdoor spaces where people could gather in times of disaster along riverbanks, etc. and which in good times could be used by those offering attractions and vendors; areas outside of temples, where similar activities occurred, such as Asakusa; and red light districts such as Yoshiwara (吉原). Ginza was the first of a new breed, according to Japanese studies professor Sepp Linhart:³

Ginza’s rise to preeminence […] mirrors the shift from entertainment catering to the old Tokugawa middle class of small businessmen and artisans to the new middle class of salaried white collar workers and professionals.

While it may seem strange, the crowdedness of these areas is part of the allure for the Japanese. Again from Linhart:⁴

What for many Europeans may be something quite unpleasant, seems to be for Japanese an enjoyable setting. Many Japanese […] simply cannot fall into a relaxed, leisurely mood if a sakariba is not full of people. They are disappointed if too few people are there […].

Japanese sociologist ikei Nozomu (池井 望) even coined the term zatto no miryoku—“fascination of the crowd” (雑踏の魅力) to describe this element of the appeal of the sakariba.⁵

In any case, the appearance of the busy aspect of these districts seems to have corresponded to Ginza’s rise: Trendy shopfronts and innumerable cafes came to characterize the area, but, as previously noted, Ginza wasn’t really a retail center, it was one for window shopping and idling. Mobo and Moga flocked to the area, but mostly just to see and be seen—to be part of the crowd. The activity was so specific to these people and this area, that it was called gimbura: “wasting time in Ginza” (銀ブラ), derived from Ginza and ぶらぶら (burabura) “wandering aimlessly”. Fashionable attire was part of the gimbura scene, and single men could remove the awkwardness of strolling alone by hiring a “walking stick girl” (sutekki gāru, ステッキ ガール) for two yen to accompany them.

Even in the days of the Rice Riots, Kafū Nagai (永井 荷風, the pseudonym of Japanese writer Nagai Sōkichi, 永井 壮吉) detected a certain air of leisureliness among the dissidents in Ginza:⁶

I heard later that the rioting always occurred in the cool of evening. There was a good moon every evening during those days. Hearing that the rioters gathered menacingly before the houses of the wealthy when the evening had turned cool and the moon had come up, I could not put down a feeling that there was something easy and comfortable about it all. It went on for five or six days and then things returned to normal. On the night of the return to normal, it rained.

As Tanizaki noted with some bitterness of the era, “Old Japan had been left behind and new Japan had not yet come.”⁷ Many of the forms we associate with Tokyo as well as Japan emerged during Taishō, but as we have seen, many were only rough prototypes. The earthquake, economic depression and WWII would ruin the chances for some of them to reach perfection, but others would eventually come to define modern Japan.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture


  1. In Japanese, the saying runs: 火事と喧嘩は江戸の華, (kaji to kenka wa Edo no hana).
  2. Quoted from Edward Seidensticker, Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: How the Shogun’s Ancient Capital Became a Great Modern City, 1867–1923, 1983, which I have consulted throughout.
  3. In “Sakariba: zone of ‘evaporation’ between work and home?”, Interpreting Japanese Society: Anthropological Approaches, Joy Hendry, ed., 1998.
  4. Ibid.
  5. In 「盛 り場行 動. 論-空 間 と娯楽」 (“Behavioral Theory of the Sakariba: Theory Space and Entertainment”), 1973.
  6. Seidensticker, 1983.
  7. Ibid.

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